The story of the rise of ISIS

Ishtiaq Ahmed explores the reasons behind violence in the Middle East, in the concluding article of a two-part series

The story of the rise of ISIS
I wrote on November 27 that the Syrian civil war had become an uneven contest in which the 71-80 per cent Sunni majority was being butchered mercilessly by the Bashar Al-Asad regime with the backing of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. 90 per cent of the casualties are being caused by the government forces and their foreign backers. Some 300,000 Syrians have been killed by the Syrian government forces, 12 million have been displaced, three million are living in neighbouring countries, and one million trying to get into Europe. Russia’s involvement on the side of Al-Assad has meant that not just ISIS targets are being hit. All opposition groups and forces, including the Turkmen close to the Turkish border, are being pounded with relentless bombing. I am truly ashamed of those Pakistani leftists who look at Vladimir Putin as some Communist champion fighting a people’s war. The truth is that before he started his bombing campaign (and that is much before an ISIS cadre blew up a plane full of Russian tourists returning home after a holiday in Egypt) Putin sought the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church for his bombing spree in Syria. A Sunni genocide is underway.

The West has let down the Syrian opposition by refusing to arm and train it adequately. Saying this does not make me a supporter of ISIS or a Sunni Communist. The veteran Israeli peace champion Uri Avnery remarked that nobody is born a terrorist. Terrorists are created under a set of circumstances. I will expand on this and introduce some theoretical sophistication to the discussion.  Consequently I will probe the psychological underpinnings of collective violence or terrorism and the circumstances in which it thrives.
A Sunni genocide is underway in Syria

According to Prof Ted Gurr (Why Men Rebel?, 1971), when men perceive a discrepancy between what they believe they deserve and what they have actually achieved, they are distressed. Societal conditions that intensify their level of expectations without simultaneously increasing their capabilities to achieve them intensify their discontent. Similarly, societal conditions which decrease the average position of people without decreasing their expectations also intensify discontent. Hence the greater the intensity of discontent, the more likely is violence. Collective discontent tends to be politicized and then expressed in violent action. Collective violence usually has a political objective.

Now, the truth is that a huge gap exists between the Muslim belief that they are the best community in the world and destined to rule the world, and the reality. Just read the original works of the three main ideologues of radical Islam: Syed Abul Ala Maududi, Syed Qutb and Imam Khomeini. They are united in this belief.  The reality is that Muslims everywhere are behind other communities in education, economic development and political emancipation. However, these ideologues had limited appeal.

Ironically, it was the Cold War competition which created a basis for Islamic revivals to emerge in the international arena and the West became its patron. The Arab world was polarized between conservative monarchies and radical military-led regimes. Democracy, in the sense of a government elected through free and fair multi-party elections, was conspicuous by its absence in both the regime types. Additionally, in the case of Iraq and Syria, the governments that came to power were dominated by minorities (Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Alawite Shias in Syria). Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria were modernizing dictatorships as compared to Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic state, and Jordan and Morocco, moderate monarchies. We need not comment on all the regimes in the Arab world. But opposition to Israel existed in all of them.
Defeat at the hands of Israel undermined the secular-nationalist project in the Arab world

In the aftermath of the 1967 defeat of the Arabs in the war with Israel, a myth was born that Israel won the war because it was a religious-nationalist state while the Muslims lost because God wanted to punish them for forsaking Islam in favour of secularism and socialism. The 1973 Arab-Israel War accentuated this irrational mode of thinking. Additionally, the initial success by the Egyptian Army was turned into defeat because the United States come to the rescue of the Israelis by creating an air bridge that began to deliver much more advanced weapons than what the Soviet Union had provided to the Arabs. It also became clear that whereas the United States would never allow the Arabs to defeat the Israelis, the Soviets would not go to war with the United States on behalf of the Arabs. The defeat at the hands of Israel in the two wars greatly undermined the secular-nationalist project in the Arab world.

However, it was not in the Arab world that Islamic radicalism met with success.  It was in Iran that religious extremism burst out on the political arena with unprecedented force. Riding a wave of popular agitations that the Iranian people had launched against the Shah of Iran – whose dictatorship and repressive policies had crushed the left, liberal and democratic forces as well as the Shia clergy – the latter took the initiative, because although it too had faced considerable repression, it had survived as a national institution deeply linked to the people in both urban and rural contexts. On the other hand, the secular political parties had liquidated.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

The Iranian Ayatollahs installed a theocracy that in an eclectic manner chose some modern practices and institutions, such as universal adult franchise and an elected parliament and government, but with the Sharia as the supreme law of the land and the clergy as the censorial entity that approved all laws and candidates for parliament and president. Its record of human rights violations against deviant sects and women has been appalling. The Ayatollahs then embarked upon a concerted policy of exporting their revolution. It aroused Shias everywhere, but also impressed radical Sunnis.

The Iranian revolution challenged the leading role of Saudi Arabia: the oldest fundamentalist regime in the Muslim world. As self-professed leaders of Sunni Islam, the Saudis reacted with extreme revulsion to the Shia revival. Saudi Arabia poured millions of dollars into a worldwide Islamic revival under their extremist Wahhabi doctrine. Wahhabism confronted Iranian Shia millenarianism with a vengeance. Both were rentier states who had acquired billions of dollars without working for them: through the export of oil. Wedded to a worldview anchored in the past, both were anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-minorities and hostile to the equality and freedom of women (of course Iran much less than Saudi Arabia in its social and political policies).

The drift towards extremism reached its apotheosis in the 1980s when the United States and Saudi Arabia jointly sponsored a jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan became the frontline state where Muslim warriors from all over the world were brought, trained and sent into Afghanistan to fight the Red Army. Though Pakistanis made up the bulk of the jihadis, Muslim youth from other parts of South and Southeast Asia also joined the holy war.  They were indoctrinated into believing that jihad or holy war could bring down the Godless Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
He sent thousands of young boys to the battlefield wearing a key to paradise

The fanatical indoctrination now easily transformed into a belief in God helping them against the YahudHanud and Nisara (Jews, Hindus and Christians). Understandably, it also turned against Shias, which proves that Islamic revivals are sectarian revivals and that Islamic states are always sectarian states. It was in such circumstances that Al Qaeda, consisting mainly of Arab and other foreign veterans of the Afghan jihad, masterminded a number of terrorist attacks on US targets worldwide, including in places as far as Kenya and New York.  Such terrorism came to a head when on September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda hit prestigious targets in New York and Washington DC. Parallel to such developments connected to the Afghan jihad was the longest war after World War II – between Iran and Iraq (1980-88) – which claimed some 2 million lives. The war was started by Iraq, but it was Khomeini who refused to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. He sent thousands of young boys to the battlefield wearing a key that was supposed to ensure them entry into paradise. Some 1.5 million Muslims were killed.

Here, I need to bring into the picture the role of the West in relation to the Muslim world. In one sense the term ‘West’ is misleading just as the term Muslim world too obfuscates the variations and contradictions present in both cultural-geographical descriptions. I use it as a convenient term.  Internally, after World War II, Western Europe began to democratize and liberalize rapidly. From the 1970s onwards, it became inclusive as well, and ethnic minorities, women and immigrants were granted egalitarian rights. North America developed in a similar direction though its dynamics followed a different trajectory. Both popular struggles from below and enlightened elites from above paved the way for the democratization of the West. The Christian churches accepted a limited role as specialists on religious matters and as civil society actors taking care of charity work and speaking out, from time to time, in favour of peace and for generous treatment of refugees. That explains why refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa want to come to the West. In contrast, Eastern European countries have without exception proved to be closed societies based on ethnic nationalism.


However, in relation to the former colonies in general, and especially those where oil reserves are found in abundance, the old imperialist objectives remain largely intact: to bolster pliant regimes and to undermine defiant ones. Thus when George W Bush and his cronies embarked upon their regime change strategy, it greatly intensified turmoil in the Arab world. A regime change was forced on Iraq and then on Libya – both were welfare states but without democratic freedoms – but the most repressive, intellectually suffocating and politically reactionary state of all, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom was given more or less a free hand to abuse state power and brutalize its own people and hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. The Gulf States were somewhat open but the plight of millions of workers from the third world was appalling. Equally, Israeli excesses against the Palestinians continued without let or hindrance. Benjamin Netanyahu’s private psychologist has testified that he is a congenital and compulsive liar, and yet President Obama and Secretary Kerry are helpless in making him abandon his aggrandizement against the Palestinians.

Keeping this in mind, if we want to understand how and why ISIS emerged as a violent movement sui generis and won the sympathy of hundreds of Muslim youth in the West and elsewhere, we have to keep in mind the circumstances in which the psychological underpinnings of their rebellion took shape. Much before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the media was reporting that sanctions were killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The invasion shattered whatever state authority remained, and when the United States military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, a rabidly Shia regime unleashed a reign of terror on the Sunni Arabs. ISIS arose in these circumstances. It moved from Iraq into Syria, using terror on their way, in the most horrific ways. Do ISIS and the jihadi cadres represent true Islam? I think this question can never be answered conclusively. But let me share something that happened recently in Sweden. In a popular television programme where celebrities are interviewed on Friday evenings, a French journalist Nicholas Henin was one of the guests last week. He was captured by jihadists in Syria last year and spent nine months in cramped cells alongside other Westerners, some of whom were brutally beheaded. He was released though he did not know who paid the ransom. He was asked if the motivation to join ISIS by European Muslims had something to do with Islam. To everybody’s surprise, he said no. He said most of the youth from Europe who join ISIS are dropouts who are misfits and find themselves rejected and declared worthless. They are however aware of the relentless bombing and killing which has been going on in the Middle East and the larger Arab world, and are therefore angry and frustrated. Thus France had not only bombed Libya, but also joined the campaign against ISIS in Syria. But like other Western powers, it had done nothing substantive to stem the reign of terror the Al-Asad regime hand unleashed on the Sunnis. Such individuals nurture a deep sense of hurt and injustice. They become easy prey to the highly sophisticated propaganda carried out by ISIS and similar organizations via social media and their cells and other networks. Most of them have only superficial knowledge of Islam, but suddenly they are conferred a high status as the ‘warriors of Allah’, and sent on terrorist missions.

Given this sad, tragic and bleeding nature of the Middle East and the Arab crisis, a multifaceted strategy is needed to halt the genocide of Sunnis in Syria and destroy ISIS in the Middle East, North Africa and in the West, and wherever else they have their cells. Bashar Al-Asad should not only step down, he should be captured and put on trial for crimes against humanity. On the other hand, the Alawi minority and other minority groups who have supported Bashar Al-Asad need to be protected from Sunni vengeance. The task is daunting. In the longer run, it is for Muslims to develop arguments which help them catch up with the rest of the world on human rights, minority rights, women rights and rights of other oppressed groups. Externally, there should be no support for annexation through ‘holy war’. It is time to accept that international law does not permit such aggrandizement. One cannot cash the real and imaginary past glory forever. It is time to wake up to the realities of the 21st century.

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: